Mr Justice Collins ruled in four test cases, involving the London councils of Hammersmith and Fulham, Lambeth and Westminster, that authorities had a duty to help applicants denied emergency aid because they had failed to claim asylum immediately on entering the country, 'if satisfied that any of them have no other means of support'.
The Association of London Government described the ruling as devastating and warned that it could cost £10 million this year.
The judge said he did not consider that his ruling frustrated government legislation designed to deter bogus asylum-seekers: 'I find it impossible to believe that Parliament intended that an asylum-seeker, who was lawfully here and who could not be lawfully removed from the country, should be left destitute, starving and at risk of grave illness and even death.'
Mr Justice Collins said the authorities had adopted 'too narrow a construction' of the law. He awarded the applicants 50% of their costs against the councils and 50% against health secretary Stephen Dorrell, who had also contested their challenge.